The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;
the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes (Psalm 118.22—23).
There has long been debate among theologians as to whether our lead text refers to David/Israel or to the Christ, or to both, a question to which we presently turn.
DAVID/ISRAEL. On the one hand, our text appears to apply to David as he indeed experienced rejection before ultimately becoming the capstone of God’s building, his chosen people, the Israelite nation.
Despite God pointing out that He was their leader, the Israelite people clamored for a traditional king and God turned them over to their desires with the anointing of Saul as king over Israel. Not long afterwards, however, Saul began to disobey the LORD’s commands causing hardships for Israel and, consequently, God rejected Saul as king, instructing Samuel, the prophet, to anoint David king of Israel, which he promptly did.
David’s rejection, however, came at the hands of an extremely jealous Saul who would not stand down as king and, despite David’s unrequited support of Saul, he tried to kill David, or have him killed, for several years following David’s anointing. After several failed murderous attempts on David’s life and a huge military defeat to the Philistines under Saul’s leadership, rather than battle the Philistines to his death, Saul succumbed to the evil spirit that tormented him and fell on his own sword, killing himself.
At last, David was installed as king of Israel, but his rejection lingered on for seven and a half agonizing years as he was forced to deal with persisting civil wars between the houses of Saul and David. This resulted in a kingdom divided, but David endured and the people grew to love him, and ultimately he became the capstone that united all the tribes and families of Israel for thirty-three years of national prosperity and growth.
After David’s kingship and his son Solomon’s Godly rule, however, the nation of Israel could be considered the rejected head stone referred to in our lead text. The powers of the world were jealous of Israel’s past success and grew to despise its existence, continually conspiring to bring about its destruction. To make matters worse, many of Israel’s kings allowed pagan influences to seep into and weaken God’s house. Consequently, God’s hand was removed from Israel and its power and authority were diminished to the point where surrounding nations scoffed at “these feeble Jews”. In spite of this, however, God had destined this lowly nation to a place of honor among the kingdoms of the world.
And so, after enduring many hardships, including the fall of Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, the stone by stone dismantling of the temple of God, and the exile of the Israelite people into enemy hands, Israel was eventually restored. Israel was ultimately advanced by God to be the capstone of both past eminence and future prominence—the former as Christ is the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, a descendant of David (Revelation 5.5; Romans 1.3; 2 Timothy 2.8), and the latter as the capital city that is to come, and enduring city coming down out of heaven from God, a beautiful bride and a very precious jewel, the Holy City, the new Jerusalem (Hebrews 13.14; Revelation 21.2 & 11).
THE CHRIST. And yet, we know for certain that our text is applicable to Jesus the Christ, the prophesied Messiah, because Jesus himself quoted this very Scripture and said unequivocally that it was about him. When Jesus was here on earth and had begun his healing and teaching ministry, one day he shared a parable with the Pharisees about a vineyard owner whose tenants refused to hand over the harvested fruit, even killing the owner’s son and servants who had been sent to collect that year’s yield. Jesus then, right there on the temple court steps, got the Pharisees to publicly declare that the tenants should not have rejected the vineyard owner’s son and servants as they had a legitimate claim of right to the harvest and, furthermore, that God should punish them accordingly.
Jesus astutely turned the Pharisees’ own declarative judgment against them by quoting Psalm 118.22, asserting that it was them, the Pharisees, who were right then at that moment rejecting the very stone referred to in Psalm 118—he, Jesus, was that stone. By making this claim, Jesus was also implying that it was he who would ultimately be revealed as the capstone, the prophesied Messiah of God’s chosen people (Matthew 21.42—45). The chief priest and the Pharisees were furious at being called out by Jesus and wanted him arrested, but they were scared of the people who were drawn to Jesus’ powerful words and obvious authority.
To be sure, the Jewish scribes, priests and Pharisees had rejected Jesus with inexorable disdain. They saw no excellence in Jesus upon which to build their church. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was a stone of another quarry, certainly not someone who could be made to fit in with their dogmatic and legalistic brand of Judaism.
Therefore, though straight out of the Hebrew scrolls, they disavowed the wisdom in Jesus’ doctrines and ordinances. They refrained from listening to him preach unless it was to catch him in a trap, which they failed at miserably. Needless to say, they did not preach about Jesus, even precluding others from doing it. In short, the Pharisees refused to own Jesus as the stone, rejecting him out of hand and, moreover, trampled upon this stone when they chose the robber and thief, Barabbas, over Christ.
The Apostle Peter reaffirmed that Christ is the capstone referred to in Psalm 118. In the book of Acts, when speaking to the Sanhedrin, the overruling religious body of which the Pharisees were one sect, Peter called them out as the ones who had crucified Jesus Christ, stating that Christ was “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone” (Acts 4.11). Note how Peter substituted the word “you” for the original “the” in referring to “the/you” builders who rejected the capstone Christ—emphatically reasserting Jesus’ accusation that Psalm 118.22 prophetically exposed the Jewish religious leaders’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.
By humbling himself in compliance with his Father’s design, Jesus indeed became the head stone, the corner stone, the capstone—the foundation of our hope, the center of our unity, and the cause of our living. “For to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1.21). As the chief corner stone, Christ is the head of the body, exalted above all principalities and powers, bringing both strength and beauty to his church.
This, of course, was all accomplished by and in accordance with the good and perfect will of Father God (Ephesians 1.11). The Father sent him (John 5.36), sealed him (John 6.27), and God’s hand was with him throughout the entire undertaking (Acts 2.22—24). In like manner, from the first to the last, Jesus sought out and did his Father’s will (John 6.38), even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2.8). Because of the Father’s plan and the Son’s obedience, Christ was raised and made the capstone, and our redemption was wrought. This, the most amazing of all God’s wondrous works, ought to be and truly is marvelous in the eyes of all believers!
CONCLUSION. In closing, one would be hard pressed, I believe, to show that our text does not refer to David and the nation of Israel, both of which experienced significant rejection before undergoing advancement at the hands of the Lord’s will. Additionally, Peter quotes our lead text a second time referring to Christ as the “living” Stone, the cornerstone who is chosen by, and precious to, Father God. Moreover, says Peter, those who trust in this capstone will not be put to shame (1 Peter 2.4—8).
In the end, it is reasonable and prudent to conclude our principal text refers to both David/Israel and to the Christ. After all, the principle underlying our text is that Christ, the true representative of Israel, vicariously undertook and accomplished the very mission originally assigned to Israel. In light of this, one would expect our text to apply in like manner to both Israel and Christ, and it in fact does.